Powerful truths are sometimes found in small things, yet we often fail to notice and appreciate them because they are so small. God gave His people a small symbol to help them understand profound truths about Him. From the divinely revealed details of the altar of incense within the Old Testament tabernacle we learn that powerful factors for good can seem small.
The incense altar wasn’t large; it stood only about three feet high and eighteen inches across. It was a tiny altar, but it played a potent role in the tabernacle where God met with man (Exodus 37:25–29). It stood directly before the inner veil in front of the ark, the location of God’s presence (Exodus 30:1–6, 36). The ornate golden altar of incense was unlike the other furnishings, as it was used exclusively for burning incense. In Psalms 141:2, we hear the plea “May my prayer come to you like the sweet smell of incense” (NIRV). In the opening of the Gospel of Luke and in the early scenes of Revelation, we find that incense and prayer are closely linked (Luke 1:8–10; Revelation 5:8). The high priest would attend to this splendid altar every morning and evening, offering up ever burning incense, but when the sin and impurity of the people affected the sanctuary and tainted the altar, the blood of purification was the only solution to make the people fully accepted to find access to the divine presence (Leviticus 4,16).
The normal daily use of this altar was for burning incense, which created a large cloud of smoke as well as a pleasing fragrance from a unique blend of fine spices (Exodus 30:7–8, 34–38). In the Song of Songs, sweet fragrance filling the air is rich imagery for experiencing intimacy and closeness. The longing prayer from the yearning depths of the soul is received by a God who deeply loves us. He loves to meet with us, and the fragrant aroma of the incense proves that God accepts us. While each of us must confess and get cleansed every day, we can know that God pays attention to our deepest needs and petitions. He intercedes for us, gathering up our penitence, prayer, and praise like bowls filled with incense and infusing them with His beautiful and fragrant life. He adds the perfume of His pure and holy life as we continue in that prayer—His prayer for us—and that perfumed experience elevates and transforms us.
When the evils of impurity and sin accumulated in the tabernacle, essentially polluting the place where God dwelt, blood and incense were the ritual ingredients used to purge and remove the defiling pollution to allow for His nearness. We see that God is in direct contact with our world, close enough to require the incense altar. The truth is that God loves to meet with us; He does so in the midst of our brokenness, our corruption, and our turmoil (Numbers 16:46, 47). He promises not only to hear us when we pray but to speak to us and infuse our lives with His love. Through intercession, He straightens our corrupt swervings into conformity with His life—a deliberate hiding of our failings in the sweetness of His fragrant life lived for us. God loves us so much that He wants to make us fragrant with the perfume of His righteousness—our very lives purified and composed in the incense of His own perfection. God has invited humanity close, requiring that the incense not only cleanse through atonement but also form a large smoke cloud that allows the high priest to be alone in the tent where God is. His glory was veiled by the screen of fragrance, yet the altar of incense suggests that there is a way to regain the lost connection between humanity and God. This altar is also mentioned in the book of Revelation, helping to explain the mystery of how to regain connection, even when presence and absence seem to be true (Revelation 8:4).
In addition to teaching us about our earthly need for intercession and purification, the incense altar shows that our service, our prayers, and our praise are all part of God’s solution for the world. In the story of Revelation, John notices activity like toxic pollution threatening to defile the area around the altar and the place of God’s dwelling. We see destructive activity and evils unleashed by the selfish actions of humans and demonic forces (Revelation 9:13–14). According to John, this destruction concludes with humanity failing to repent (9:20–21). Is humanity doomed to this hostile and threatening existence, or will something resolve it—something that leads to repentance, acceptance, and closeness with God? It is here that we find the prayer of generations, the prayer of human need ascending before God and heaven, paying careful attention to them as the angel stands holding a brazier or fire pan smoking with coals and incense. The power of intercession and prayer emerges as catastrophic events begin to unfold (Revelation 8:6–11:19).
The language used in these scenes of Revelation is that of judgment and plague. John seems to suggest that unresolved evil is always present in a hostile world and that plague and judgment will come until evil is removed and we are fully redeemed. New Testament scholar Sigve K. Tonstad raises a valid question as to whether the purpose of the trumpet plagues in Revelation must be understood as inflictions of divine punishment (Revelation, 2019, p.144). John’s language suggests that these plagues and punishments are self-created—sourced from the abyss where demonic forces reign. Punishment and torment, self-considered, never leads men to repentance, prayer, or praise. So, are we doomed to punishment—a self-inflicted judgment unleashed upon the earth—or will something lead us to confession and praise? The small altar introduced into the scene powerfully suggests that there is a way to repentance.
This tiny altar of incense provides a compelling answer: God hears our petitions and prayers—not to elicit punishment but to offer up much incense. It is the prayers, the praise, and the faithful witness of God’s people mingled with Jesus’s righteousness that leads to repentance and penitent confession. The evil and punishment unleashed by humans’ selfish actions and the world’s demonic forces can never create peace. God comes to purify and to restore, and our prayers and praise are part of His solution (Ezekiel 10:2). His judgment comes to challenge mans self-absorption, exposing false pretense and evil. We worship and participate with God as we witness His response, His revelation, knowing that intercession and restraint will not last forever—the censer containing atoning incense will finally be thrown down (see Mishnah Tractate Tamid 5:5–6 and Jon Pauline’s Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets, 1988, p. 314).
What is the mystery underlying the altar of incense? It is that faithful service and witness lead to repentance. Prayer and service mingled with the faithfulness of Jesus is how God accomplishes His purposes in the world. It is the fragrant self-sacrificing life of love that proclaims and propels the kingdom of God. There is a way to succeed—to come to repentance and to the presence of God—for after all, He gives us a small symbol that invites humanity close. I propose that the incense altar mentioned by John plays an important role in the revelation of God’s desire for and the means to achieving this nearness. The incense and prayers reflect the life of Jesus and His witnessing community. Jesus is the example of what these prayers and witnessing look like. John sees a large cloud of faithful witnesses rising from the altar, faltering yet prayerfully struggling to become that example: “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15, NKJV).
The altar of incense is a small symbol that God is sensitive to our needs. It is a symbol of God’s nearness in moments of absence and His intimate prayer for us. It teaches us large truths about God’s work on our behalf to regain connection. Remaining in that sweet place and making His fragrance our constant breath will transform our lives and lead to repentance. Just as the fragrant aroma of sweet spices rising from the incense altar permeated the sanctuary and wafted beyond its holy precincts into the outside world, God wants us to carry His fragrance into the hostile world around us. He wants our lives to smell of the pleasing aroma of His selfless love, for only that witness will bring about repentance and praise in the world.
Craig Ashton Jr.